One of the things I so love about travel and touring is getting a much more powerful sense of history; standing in and on the places where events and lives long past have happened, whether grand or insignificant, utterly changes my understanding of those people and occurrences. My first trip overseas, that Grand Tour I was so privileged to take in college with my older sister, was an awakening I never expected. I hoped the trip would be a cure for my sophomore blues, and indeed it was, beyond anything I could have planned or dreamt before, but more than that I was startled by how connected I felt to history.

The drizzly and cold autumn day when we visited Canterbury Cathedral was atmospheric enough in its way, but I remember standing on stone steps worn into a soft bowl by the thousands of footsteps that had passed over them in the centuries of its existence, looking up into a palely gold ray from a lamp, seeing the motes of dust whirling in it, and feeling that time itself was floating down around me in delicate pieces, that the spirit of every person who had ever set foot on that same smooth hollow in the stone was present there with me in that very moment. It was almost as though I could hear their voices and see the scenes of the past play out in the faint gloom around me, all overlapping and yet perfectly present. I felt my own place in the whole of the human timeline in an entirely different way than I ever expected, tinier than ever, yet surprisingly more concrete and tangible.

This was reinforced later in the same journey many times, as we passed through or visited (not necessarily in this order) England, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland and stood in the very footprints of many a person, going down the winding passages and cobbled side-streets that had seen multitudes of significant moments long since fled. As this was the first time I visited Norway, the rooting ground of my ancestors from every branch of my family tree, it is no surprise in retrospect that many of those potent realizations came to me in that place—but as usual, hindsight is ever so much clearer than was my youthful wisdom in those days. It was moving, more meaningful than I can express, to get to know the relatives in Norway with whom my family had maintained contact: my maternal grandfather’s sisters and brother-in-law, nieces and nephew. These were days before cheap telephonic long distance, let alone email and internet communiqués, so we had only briefly even met most of these people when they visited America once in my younger years, yet they not only took us in as visitors, Tante Anna and Onkel Alf kept my sister and me with them for a full month and took us to see the family’s two longtime farms, the graves where many of our ancestors were sleeping underfoot. This was incredibly touching, a genealogical history lesson, but the more so because it was taught by the eldest of our remaining family there.

What moved me the most, in fact, was when on arriving in Oslo at our mother’s cousin’s home before we even came down south to be with his parents, we explored the great city a little on our own during the days, while he was at work and his wife and children off having their own day of adventures. It was all so humbling and so magical to feel for the first time that I understood a tiny bit more of my own family lineage and how our people fit into the larger world. We did visit many of the obligatory and famous tourist sites, knowing that there was no direct link to our ancestors, only cultural ones. So I was quite stunned when we visited the Viking Ship Museum and, standing before these ancient vessels, I was absolutely electrified with a sense of shared history coursing through my veins. My forebears were undoubtedly humble subsistence farmers, not the bold and violent and adventurous Viking strain we know through film and television, never mind through the great Sagas—but I felt for the first time something connecting me to those long-gone people all the same.
Photo: Enter the Time Machine

By now I have traveled a fair amount more. I have been on this planet more than twice as long, and I think I might even be a little bit wiser through my experiences in that life than I was back then. But I approach every narrow stone passageway, every weathered door, every window with its rippling antique panes presenting everything that’s beyond them like a warped post-impressionist fiction of itself, I expect to learn something not only about what is there in front of me and around me, but what is inside me. And I know that I will learn something, too, about how I fit into that larger, and ever so mysterious, world if I am wise and patient and alert enough to notice it. So much has gone by. So much remains ahead, yet unknown.

The Strangest Kind of Strangers on a Train

The old tale of complete strangers meeting in transit, discovering they have identical problems, and “solving” the problems by trading crimes to eliminate the people they see as the root of their unhappiness, makes for a striking mystery drama, in fiction. Ask Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock fans! But I was reminded recently that we give too little credit to our commonalities as a positive solution to our problems, and end up missing crucial opportunities as a result.

The filmic version takes as its thesis that the two strangers who meet can find not other, or at least no better, solution to the problem of having bad relationships with inconveniently incompatible people than to murder them, and by ‘exchanging’ murders with each other they hope to escape detection by each having no apparent connection to, or a motive for killing, the other’s nemesis.

While this makes for startling and even compelling imagined mystery, it’s horrific if imagined in real terms. Yet we do similar things all the time in this world, don’t we? Because I tend to agree with a particular point of view in general, say, a specific philosophy or political party’s policies, or my country’s traditions, does that mean it’s wise or humane or practical or generous to follow along without question, no matter what my group, party or nation says and does? We mortals are remarkably good at noticing and magnifying our differences, as genuine and large as they may be. But we’re frighteningly weak, in opposing measure, when it comes to recognizing, focusing on, and building upon our true kinship. This, I believe, easily outweighs in both quantity and importance, our separating characteristics. Digital illustration from a photo: Opening Doors

The recent train outing in Sweden that reminded me so pointedly of this also confirmed my belief that it’s an area where youth is wiser than experience. In a railcar where a young father, not a local or a native speaker of the language, was keeping his fifteen-month-old daughter occupied and contented during the trip by helping her practice her tipsy walking, she made her way with his help to where another family, also foreign but not of the same culture as father and daughter, was sitting together. That group was of two adult sisters and their four or five school-age children. The toddler was naturally attracted to the friendly and spirited older children, and as soon as they saw her, they too were enchanted. What followed was perhaps twenty minutes of delighted interaction between them all, with occasional balance aid from Papa and photo-taking by the Mamas. And barely a word was spoken, much less understood by any of the participants, during the entire episode.

The greatest among the many beauties of this endearing one-act was that the conversation essentially began, continued and ended with the kids reaching toward one another with open hands, waving and gesturing and generally putting on an elaborate pantomime together, and above all, giggling and chortling with peals and squeals of ecstatic laughter.

Needless to say, all of us adults in the railcar grinned, giggled, chortled and otherwise became happy kids right along with them. Resistance was an impossibility and a pointless attempt, at that. And isn’t that an excellent lesson for all? Adults are too busy being territorial and fearful and downright feral to remember that the open hand of welcome and sharing is as quickly reciprocated as any gesture, and a smile of greeting and acceptance is contagious beyond any language, age, or cultural barriers. We can nurse our terrors of the unknown as supposed adults, or we can choose to laugh together like children.Digital illustration from a photo: As If in a Mirror

Foodie Tuesday: Artful Eating

Another pleasure of travel—of getting out of my familiar paths and habits—is discovering not only new things to eat but new ways of preparing and presenting foods I might have known all along. Whether there’s some entirely unforeseen ingredient or the known ones are combined in a completely unfamiliar way or plated more exotically or beautifully than I’ve seen before, it’s all, well, food for thought. And a danged fine way to assuage the hunger pangs brought on by wandering and exploring in new territory.

The time we spent in Europe in July was yet another happy example of this truism. So much so that I’ll just give you a few tantalizing shots for your contemplation and not go further. You’ll be wanting to dash off for lunch before I have any time to go on further anyhow, don’t you know.Photos: Artful Eating (Series) 2014-08-05.2.artful-eating 2014-08-05.3.artful-eating 2014-08-05.4.artful-eating 2014-08-05.5.artful-eating 2014-08-05.6.artful-eating 2014-08-05.7.artful-eating 2014-08-05.8.artful-eating

Foodie Tuesday: A Toast to Skagen

I have not yet been to Skagen, that Danish destiny so alluring to international tourists, fishermen and art lovers, but I have long since had an imaginary affair of the heart with it, thanks to the popular Swedish concoction known as Toast Skagen. It’s quite a simple thing, really, just toast points with a light shrimp salad on them, but when the shrimp are just-jumped-out-of-the-sea fresh and sweet and the preparation of them done with a delicate hand, it’s just about as good as seafood can get. So between visits to Sweden, I pine for the treat. It’s not that I couldn’t make my own facsimile of that assemblage, for even in the heart of north Texas there are places where one can lay hands on pretty good shrimp (at a price), but since the presence of briny air and piercingly radiant northern light and the lilt of Swedish conversation all around are also key ingredients regardless of their absence from the written instructions one might find for the preparation of it, Toast Skagen is still best savored in Scandinavia, and worth the protracted longings between visits.

That is why, if it appears on an even moderately trustworthy menu in Stockholm and its environs, I am likely to order Toast Skagen without even giving much of the rest of the menu a fair study. On the visit that just ended a few days ago, I did just that. Several times. And I was not disappointed—unless you count each time I ate the last bite.

The simplicity of the combination is key, because it must showcase the freshness of the shrimp, but there is room for subtle difference just as there is in any classic food recipe or combination that has survived the twin tests of time and chefs’ egos. The best preparation of Toast Skagen begins with fresh, perfectly cooked cold shrimp, is seasoned with nothing more noticeable than fresh lemon juice and fresh dill, lest the delicate salty sweetness of the shrimp be overpowered, and is bound with mayonnaise and served with or on bread. That’s about it. The subtleties come in with the proportions in the combination, the type of bread or toast, the presentation, and a few possible additional flavors and garnishes that won’t attempt to compete with the simple perfection of the concept.Photo: Toast Skagen 1

On this visit, I managed to taste three slightly different, all delicious, versions within the bounds of our ten days. I’m sure I’d have done more, but I did have to leave room for other favorites, and despite having eaten extensively and often, I did have to accept the finitude of hours in the day. Even though with midsummer daylight, those were admittedly impressive. The version of my shrimp-laden toasty dream that I’d been contemplating for the longest before our recent trip was had on our last day in Stockholm, for we had plenty of other places to go and people to see before then, but we did finally go to Sturehof, a venerable restaurant in a swanky but not stuffy neighborhood only a hop, skip and short T-bana (subway) ride from where we stayed. At Sturehof, I was greeted by lightly toasted points of white bread and a copious hillock of shrimp shaped with the help of a very light coating of mayonnaise. A toss of snipped dill, a mild dash of perhaps Dijon mustard to undergird the squeeze of lemon I’d give it, and a spoonful of Kalix Löjrom (caviar) to give a little snappy texture and sea flavor boosting, and it was a filling but refreshing luncheon to give our last day of play in Sweden a far less melancholy tinge.Photo: Toast Skagen 2

The second version of Toast Skagen was almost an afterthought in the middle of our visit, but far from negligible in the eating. My husband and I went with a dear friend to visit the fantastic Artipelag, part seaside park, part eco-tourist experiment, part art museum and all Swedish brainchild of the inventor of the BabyBjörn line of child care products. Unlike many museum cafes, this place’s eateries are worthy of a visit entirely unrelated to the call to check out all of the other wonders of Artipelag. We didn’t even bother to go up and dine in the restaurant upstairs after having a quick look at the buffet in the less fussy main level. It was an extravaganza of delicious and beautifully prepared traditional Swedish foods and their contemporary companions, and reasonably priced for such a grand meal at that. Among the attractions for me was an early spotting of other visitors parading their plates to the table with enticing spoonfuls of Toast Skagen in their midst, but when I arrived to select my foods at the board, the Skagen bowls were empty. Empty! Thank goodness I noticed that the staff continued to keep most of the dishes there overflowing with fresh batches of food, so I pulled up my fainting spirit and managed to down great quantities of other delectables before going back to find the missing delight replenished.

It was worth the wait, which, given the quantity and quality of everything else I’d been eating quite happily in the meantime, was no small feat. This version of Toast Skagen was either the plainest or the most complex of all, depending upon how one chose to dish it, dress it up, and/or accompany it when choosing from the fabulous array of salmon with baby peas, lovely cool salads, savory sausages, buttery tiny roasted potatoes, and so much more. I opted to keep it somewhat unfussy since it was really the dessert after I’d consumed so much other tasty food. There was splendid chewy, crusty peasant bread to be freshly sliced by my own hand from a warm loaf, so it seemed the obvious thing to merely take a slice or two, give it a slick of good cold butter, because to ignore good cold Swedish butter is very nearly a cardinal sin, and put a fat spoonful of shrimp on top. This variation had the mayonnaise and dill and very little else, but because the shrimp and bread and butter were so fresh and delicious, it was as close to perfect as need be.Photo: Toast Skagen 3

The first, and not least, helping of this craved creation that I had on the journey was on a tour boat that we took with other great local friends, while cruising leisurely through the archipelago‘s canals to have a short walking tour in Sandhamn before boarding for a leisurely dinner cruise back to town. The dinner onboard was a very pleasant, well-prepared selection of Swedish favorites, like the Artipelag buffet, but at this sit-down meal one had the choice of two fixed menus, with or without drinks and dessert, and ours had an option for my object of Swedish shellfish lust on it, so that was a foregone conclusion. This was the prettiest plating of the three, and had a couple of good signature tweaks worth mentioning. Besides the creamy, dill-speckled shrimp salad and a scoop of Löjrom for that snappy seaside pizzazz, there was a small stroke of Balsamic reduction brushed onto the plate and its piquancy gave a sweeter buzz to the usual lemon spritz, the latter still perfect in its way. And the garnishing lettuce and cucumber on the plate were so bracingly fresh that I only barely resisted turning Toast Skagen into Vietnamese-style salad rolls for the occasion. I munched the greens as a mini side salad, instead. Great textural contrast in one uncomplicated gesture.

Now, should you think I was so obsessed with this specific dish and with All Things Swedish All of the Time, I can assure you that my euphoric revisitation of beloved Stockholm and environs was filled with beloved friends, too, and yes, lots and lots of non-shrimp-toast-related food. More on that later. For now, be content that you know a plain yet elegant dish worthy of single-minded pursuit, and go forth in search of it yourself.

Foodie Tuesday: Some Things Never Change. And Why Should They, Eh!

It’s unclear where the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ originated (though it can easily be believed attributable to Texans before its wider popularization), but the precept is in my mind particularly apropos when it comes to foods and eateries that reach a particular stage of development that makes them Classic. Every town seems to have a diner, joint, cafe or pub that has essentially congealed into a certain form and is revered to the point that its regulars and even unattached fans will gladly rally in defense of its remaining unchanged forever. Where else would we go?photoGreatness is not essential, but being the paradigm of whatever it might be that the place or food represents gradually becomes codified as something very nearly sacred. The comfort in being able to revisit one of these places any time and find the familiar favorite food, drink, decor and ohyespeople, people is pretty much a saving grace in the midst of a dull or dark spot in life, whether it’s been a bad day or a bad decade–or just a time when you’re hungering for something more than just calories.photoMe, I’ve got a passel of favorites from all of the phases and places my life has crossed thus far, and doubtless I’ll find new ones as long as I do live. That speaks less to my personal obsession with food, good food, lots of food and equal amounts of fun and atmosphere than it does to the wide availability of tremendous cooks, distinctive and colorful rooms, buildings and locales, and fantastically personalized recipes for nearly everything imaginable. The fundamental dish, drink, dining space or clientele need not be genuinely unique or even world-class (not that that hurts!)–it’s about the combination of them and the way that the parts all strike one on the occasion that lures her back. And then back again.photoAll I should really say on the occasion of such fond reminiscences is that if you don’t already have favorite spots that you’ve visited often enough for the people running them to recognize you, exchange information about life outside the eatery, and then bring your order with all of its weird customized combinations and/or deletions without batting an eye, you had better get moving and find one or ten.photoAnd further, I should say Thank You, Tea Leaf and Harbor Lights [here, if you read the critic’s linked review of the recent renovation and its early results, is living proof of my thesis, should you be interested], Ranchman’s and Miko Sushi, Anglea’s and Mi Ranchito and 42nd Street Cafe & Bistro [an example of a place that has kept a fantastic balance between changing over time and maintaining high quality food and great people]; Thank You, Dave and Hallie, Francisco and Tony, Blaine and Cheri, Teresita and Allessio and Abuelita and all of you other wondrous souls who have been keeping the rest of us contented and coming back over all these years. Yeah, you too, you people over there in England (ohhh, that fabulous Chinese hole-in-the-wall with Sizzling Lamb, and the suave Indian place across from the V&A) and Sweden (I’m looking at you guys making us shrimp pizzas in the wood fired oven in the Stockholm train station and the people creating amazing steak frites with cognac and green peppercorn sauce in Gamlastan) and Panama (Italian salmon pasta in Central America? Oh, yes! Oh, boy!) and so many, many more. Thank You.

A Pearl Dropping into a Well

graphite drawingWhen the singing is sublime, it’s as though everything else stops. The air ceases to move. Thought stills. Time ripples ever more slowly and delicately, and only beauty exists.

When a singer’s voice takes hold and sways me, I imagine a pearl dropping into a deep, deep well. Its subtly rich sheen and its smooth look of perfection rolls at speed through the air yet seems to flow through it with an attenuated grace as though purity and love buoyed it up delicately and cradled it gently downward. At last, reaching the depths, the note, the pearl, begins its plunge–the fulness of the water embraces its fall–the ear draws in the note and pulls it soul-ward.

When the choir breathes out in flawless song, I am lost in the jeweled depths. Gorgeous and welcoming, the magnificent impossibility of such beautiful sound carries me, too, in its cradling care. And I fall–in darkness, in love, in joy.

Musick has Charms

The charms of music can, indeed, soothe the savage breast–and it can bring the terrible savage right out of the calm breast just as well. It’s a power that few can resist, love the music or not; it gets under the skin and slides on into the soul. The marvels of music are not, as you know, unknown to me and yes, I have been both incited and soothed at various times by it.

But I haven’t lived the life of total immersion. That is, as are most fully engulfing passions, left to the titans of the art. Not necessarily people known and celebrated by a large and laudatory world, indeed, but those who, whether in that pop-culture celebrity way or from deep in the dark of the behind-scenes action or somewhere in between have shaped history in whatever bold or subtle way their particular art could do.

I said I was going to be a bit dark and Halloween-ish these days, but I was reminded that this day deserves a different kind of recognition, being a memorable date of another kind altogether: the birthday of one of those titans of musical arts aforementioned. So you get a break from my grimmer humors while I bow to a great musician and a lovely man.pen & ink drawing

My husband, you ask? No, I would surely call him both as well, but I refer just now to one of the musicians who helped pave the way for my spouse, inspires him in his work, and befriended him both professionally and personally in ways that made it more possible for my partner to be quite the accomplished musician and artist that he himself is. I’m talking about the man sometimes known as the godfather of Swedish choral music, Eric Ericson.

He is celebrated by far more than just his family and friends, more even than his numerous choirs’ members and his almost countless students, because he stood at the center of an almost unbelievable burst of musical art flowering in the little Scandinavian nation of his birth and spreading throughout and beyond Europe quite immediately after World War II, sooner than it should have happened by rights except that his own country remained neutral and mainly untouched by the physical depredations of the war, and enough so that a number of outstanding leaders in culture took refuge there during and after the war, creating a remarkable hothouse where those fertile minds could put their restless art to work, and often did so together.

He is celebrated also because, as one of the central figures in this new bloom of music, he helped to shape the whole modern state of choral music, both in the church and in secular circles, in Sweden and to foster its wide spread via his own work and travels, via that of his artistic and intellectual partners and rivals and colleagues, and especially via the many, many young musicians that between them they all trained and sent off into the wide world. Their collective influence, expanding at the virtual rate of plant cell division and sending tendrils around the globe, is a rich and vital gift that will long outlive them all.pen & ink drawing

Thankfully, Eric Ericson, for one, is going to give that theory a run for it, as he has attained more than ninety years already himself. And his artistic offspring will undoubtedly keep the music sounding and growing for a very long time too, and for that I am happy and grateful indeed. We who love choral music today owe him thanks.

With that, I will say that the gracious and generous kindness that he and his dear wife have shown on a personal level to both my husband and me makes me as glad as anything to think of him on this day with great admiration and fondness. I hope that every note I have seen him conduct, heard him play on the piano while conducting and discussing the finer points of music or listened to him hum under his breath as he recollected another bit of his own fascinating and incredibly complex history as a musician will linger in the atmosphere for many years yet to come, and that in turn, no matter where on that spectrum of artistic or intellectual accomplishment any one of the rest of us happens to perch, we too will make our own kind of music echo happily in the hearts of all those whose lives we touch.

Happy birthday, Eric Ericson, may the music you hear always soothe and delight you.pen & ink drawing

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 6: Good Reading

photoI used to have a large bookcase full, top to bottom, of just my favorite cookbooks (and a few choice cooking magazines). Then we moved into an apartment half the size of our previous house. Guess what. I discovered that even most of my favorites were dispensable in exchange for the good trade in housing. The ones I parted with had to go to good homes, of course, and were a fine cause for bonding with family and friends over food in a new and different way–conversationally rather than via consumption, for a change. Still, there are some things one values above open shelf space, and a few of the ‘basics’ and a few of my personal favorites really did call out for rescue from the give-away goods enough to move with me–to all of my various domestic locations since then.

Cookbooks are far from Legal Documentation to me: I rarely follow any recipe to the letter. But they are instructional all the same, and highly inspirational. Since I depend on them so much for acting as kitchen muses, two things tend to happen–I almost always prefer cookbooks stuffed with vivid pictures as well as the recipes and descriptive tutorials, and I love cookbooks as bedtime reading and coffee-table books even more than as technical guides for my cookery, when they can stir my imagination without my being distracted by my stirring the pot. Still, I have a good number of cookbooks that are more pedagogical than pictorial and rely on them for my factual education whenever I’m in need.

My kitchen operations aren’t generally terribly sloppy, so I don’t tend to have grease marks and mustard stains all over my cookbooks. However, I am such a mad-scientist in their use that recipes not only get tweaked endlessly as I work but instantly forgotten in their current iterations if I don’t write them down, so I do desecrate my cookbooks by writing in them. They’re the only books I can think of that I have ever written in directly, but when I used to jot notes and stuff them into the pages, pretty soon I had a cookbook with a broken spine from my fattening it too much–if the book was really any good.

I’m very fond, when traveling, of finding local cooking magazines as well, because like any good picture book, they’re well enough illustrated so that I can pretty quickly translate what’s being said–okay, the Hungarian and Czech magazines are not so quickly conquered, but I can still suss out what’s going on eventually. And I love getting a taste of either the local traditions or what’s trendy there as opposed to what’s current here. Talk about tasteful souvenirs of my wanderings.

So, what are my favorites? Betty Crocker, that maven of miracles in the kitchen, is an icon of my childhood and so still keeps her place in my heart and home. For truly basic kitchen science, I’m still attached to the Joy of Cooking (Rombauer & Becker), but I like Alton Brown‘s playful yet factual approach to the chemistry and physics of it all, too. I’ve got a superb Swedish compendium (Mat Lexikonet, above) that a friend edited, not just because she’s such a dear but because in spite of having very little illustration it’s a very thorough encyclopedia of the tools, terms, dishes and ingredients commonly used in the Swedish kitchen, including all of the foods adopted and adapted from other cultures that have become part of Sweden’s rich heritage as a result of their delicious wonders. From our times spent in Sweden I have a few other great cookbooks, a couple of them also edited by our friend Birgit, and chose them primarily because while editing she would sometimes prepare the dishes for photo shoots or, better yet, test them on us who were lucky enough to visit during one of those preparatory periods. America’s Test Kitchen is also a fine source of scholarly information, and the organization’s focus on developing recipes through multiple trials and experiments makes them truly a litmus test for quality control; even though I still play with substitutions constantly I know the science behind my choices better.

For specifics that I love, I go back to a very few books regularly. For breads, I couldn’t beat Bernard Clayton‘s old standard that always gave me the right technique and proportions (in baking, of course, this is a far more fussy matter than in many other practices in the kitchen) and I could play with my variations on a theme as long as I knew precisely where and when and how that should work. My other baking go-to has remained the beautiful Country Desserts. Lee Bailey’s attention in it to lushness and depth of flavor is matched so exquisitely by the glorious photography, and frankly, I love that he emphasizes in this a laid-back approach to the dishes’ presentation that is much more in keeping with my fix-it- and-chomp-it-down mode of operation than any of those dainties that may cause me such heart palpitations when others do the decorative work but keep me waiting too long in my panting desire when they’re in my own hands in preparation. Donna Hay‘s photographers always make her cookery look even more desirable than the descriptions can do (and they can do a lot, I find), so hers are cookbooks and magazines I love to peruse for artful ideas any time.

As I do have a deep affection for pigs, living or cooked, and my kind friend Ellen knows it, she presented me with the lyrical Pork & Sons, which though filled with delectable recipes indeed, is even more a gorgeous photo album of and paean to the French farmers, chefs, butchers and eaters who revere the pig in all of its glory. International love of food–that’s half the reason for reading about it as well as eating it. And as a great admirer of the cuisines of many different cultures, I have always enjoyed reading cookbooks as a form of cultural and social and political as well as culinary history and often enjoy a meander through the tasty pages of books of Indian, German, Thai, Jewish, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Spanish or whatever other places and peoples capture my imagination at the moment. Probably one of my other greatest favorites in that realm is to peruse the local Junior League or church or social club’s cookbooks from American small towns and obscure organizations, because they too have such colorful and thought-provoking takes on what makes them who they are. I will always adore the late, lamented Ernest Matthew Mickler‘s classic White Trash Cooking as both a terrific piece of artistry and one of the most truly compassionate and funny documents of rural American cookery and culture ever to come off a press. Heart-stopping foods, perhaps, but well worth the danger for the love and laughter with which they’re garnished.

Maybe my enjoyment of that book and its cousins is really just because I’m a little trashy myself and feel so at home among the people whose crusty, hardscrabble, can-do, make-do good cheer and affections would accept pretty much anybody at the table, so long as I eat what’s put in front of me gratefully and don’t spit on the floor. White Trash is one cookbook I could never bear to write in, come to think of it, so perhaps there is something with a whiff of the sacred about great cookery books. All I know is, they’re close to my heart and so I keep ’em close to my kitchen too.

Lily of the Valley

photoOne of the rituals of fending off the dregs of winter’s chill is to linger in the hothouses and aisles of flower shops and every place that stocks us up with ideas and plants as we rejuvenate the landscape for the year. A splash of heated color draws the eye; the flash and gleam of leaves caught in each little draft pulls us in, from some pale-margined broad-leafed plant off to some lacy other. The faint sound of their fluttering evokes both sylvan breeze and birdsong and reminds us, beyond those, of springs and fountains drawn to life as winter thaws.

Perhaps the most evocative and pleasing sense that spring and summer lie in wait somewhere not far at all: perfume–the heady redolence that wafts from hyacinths and jasmine blooms, from sweet Viola odorata, from each little honeyed heart that says that life will soon return to earth. One of my favorites for sheer intensity and unstained loveliness of scent is Lily of the Valley–those clean, brilliant bells that cloister in the moss and keep their meditative calm a little secret ’til I’m close enough to catch their drift and see their whiteness glinting in the green. It may be, too, that breathing that intensity of air when these petite white satin blooms nod in the breeze calls up an atavistic searching in my blood. I start to hear that most beloved of Swedish songs (forgive me, my Norwegian forebears–but we were still ‘run’ by our cousins the Swedes until we parted ways in the early 20th century) resonating somewhere in the distance of earth’s slow axial turn, tolling in a sweetly sorrowful voice the tale of the grieving Lily King. Spring is like that–pierced with the lingering poignancy of winter’s deadly grip, but with an insistent, gorgeous urge to let earth be reborn; no matter the loss, the sorrow and the bygone things, to carry forward with what perfumed sweetness it can find.

The Romantic Nationalism that has periodically gripped the music world and produced such pleasures as David Wikander’s exquisite melody for poet Gustav Fröding’s Kung Liljekonvalje is that way too: longing for the old, but wanting something new raised up in it, like the rebirth that comes with spring. Sorrow and joy can mingle then, glowing with possibility and pain, with hesitation and with hope.

The text is sorrowful but evocative, I think, of the intensely bittersweet beauty of the Lily of the Valley; it isn’t hard to see how this must have captured the dark imaginings of many a Northerner in a Romantic frame of mind. I’ve included a translation of my own, meant not as a literal one but rather an attempt to understand something more of the character of the tale and perhaps, indeed, how it grew out of dreaming over the bowing bells of a tiny blooming thing, searching in its ice-white blossoms for promises of better and brighter things.

Kung Liljekonvalje                                  King Lily of the Valley

Kung Liljekonvalje av dungen                  King Lily-of-the-Valley’s in the green-wood,
Kung Liljekonvalje är vit som snö             King Lily-of-the-Valley, who is white as snow,
Nu sörjer unga kungen                            The young king now mourning his maiden,
Prinsessan liljekonvalje mö                      Princess Lily-of-the-Valley, in woe

Kung liljekonvalje han sänker                  King Lily-of-the-Valley now lowers                  
Sitt sorgsna huvud så tungt och vekt      His heavy head so burdened with grief
Och silverhjälmen blanker                       And on his silver helm gleams the sunset,
I sommerskymningen blekt                      Pale dusk that can bring no relief

Kring bårens spindelvävar                       Round her cold bier the cobwebs are woven,
Från rökelsekaren med blomsterstoft       And hang from censers flow’r-filled & spent,
En virak sakta svävar                               Their frankincense drifting down slowly,
All skogen är full av doft                          The forest all filled with the scent

Från björkens gungande krona                From birches’ swaying crowns to their bases,
Från vindens vaggande gröna hus          From winds that rock the green-wood’s home
Små sorgevisor tona                                Small tunes, songs of sadness and mourning
All skogen är uppfylld av sus                   Fill all of the woods as they roam

Det susar ett bud genom dälden             And rustle as wind through the glen; find
Om kungssorg bland viskande blad       The King all cloaked in whispering leaves
I skogens vida välden                              As full sorrow falls on the wood-world,
Från liljekonvaljernas huvudstad             The whole of the Valley still grieves . . .P&I drawing